I lived in Stockholm, Sweden for one brief and beautiful summer.
I ended up there through a series of serendipitous events. I’m a US-based freelancer who, technically, can live and work anywhere (though my house, family, and firm love of mountains keep me primarily rooted in Salt Lake City, Utah). After booking some photography gigs in Europe, I decided to take a family friend up on her offer to use her flat in Stockholm for the summer as a European home base.
I fell in love with the city. Stockholm is euphoric in the summertime, I think in part because the city’s winters are so dark and brutal that its residents are just plain grateful to be outdoors. I was there long enough to sink into the normalcy of the place — I worked out of various cafes, made friends, learned the ins and outs of the public transport system. I began investigating how to get the ball rolling on a permanent move there (which is still not off the table). I ate all the new foods that came my way.
I also learned, unexpectedly, some very valuable lessons about my health, my diet, the things I view as “healthy” vs. “unhealthy,” and the way my American upbringing affects each of those things, respectively.
I fell into new eating habits quickly, learning through observation from the Swedes I lived and dined with. Each morning in Sweden, I would wake up and make myself a full-fat cappuccino. Breakfast involved sawing myself off a few slices of freshly-baked white bread, slathering said slices with butter, and topping it off with Swedish cheese. I’d often repeat the process at lunch, maybe with some salad or fruit. Dinners were typically fish or vegetable based, fresh and delicious. Oh, and there was wine. An impressive amount of wine.
Everything I knew about being “healthy” in the United States told me this lifestyle was wrong. Whole-fat dairy? Alcohol? White bread? Butter? I repeat, butter?! According to the two-dozen fitness Instagrammers I follow, I should have been fat, lethargic, and sad. I felt just the opposite: Active, positive, high-energy. My skin was clearer than usual. I didn’t gain a single pound — in fact, I lost weight. An I’d-better-go-buy-a-new-pair-of-jeans amount of weight.
I was baffled for a while, but as I began to take stock of my new habits, I realized there are several things Swedes innately know that Americans have yet to figure out.
America is a country of extremes. We’re a nation of fast food drive-throughs, big gulp cups, and portion sizes that are downright dizzying — but we’re also a nation of health food, of Whole Foods, of ketogenic-this and paleo-that.
In the US, I thought healthy meant kale and Himalayan pink salt and pasture-raised, runny-yolk eggs. I drank my coffee black because I believed dairy was the devil. I experimented in giving up entire food groups.
Sweden challenged these ideas, simply by calming the f*ck down about everything. I ate happily from every food group. I let go of a lot of the guilt I associated with certain foods. Portions were smaller (read: normal size). I listened more to my body, eating when I was hungry and stopping when I wasn’t.
All of that said, I need to make a whopping distinction between Swedish food and American food: Swedish food is objectively better for you. My friend Maj, who lives in Sweden and is type-1 diabetic, told me she hates traveling in America because her blood sugar “goes crazy” (her words) eating foods she assumes to be normal.
Americans put sugar places we have no business putting sugar. Whole wheat bread. Tomato sauce. Our “low-fat” and “no-fat” alternatives to milk, yogurt, and oils are pumped full of sugars to make them taste better. Take a look at the labels in your pantry and fridge — what you find might just shock you.
So, while I hate on America’s health food industry for being so extreme, I need to acknowledge that in some ways this is out of necessity; a response to a supremely screwed-up food system that prioritizes profit over health, freshness, and even taste.
When in doubt, walk
I maintained my normal workout routine while living in Sweden, doing bodyweight resistance training three times a week. Beyond that, I was actually exercising a whole lot more, and quite by accident. My friend’s flat was in a suburb of Stockholm proper, and the walk to the train was about twenty minutes. I’m not going to lie to you: When I first arrived, I balked at that twenty-minute walk. We drive everywhere in the US, especially in smaller cities and suburbs. I’ve driven to the other side of a parking lot before, if the stores I want to shop at are at opposite ends. In Utah, my house was a whopping five whole blocks from the coffee shop I used as an office, and never once had I ever walked there.
In Sweden, it was no car, no problem. Just walking to and from the train built a default 40 minutes of walking into my day — 40 minutes I came to love because I would listen to podcasts or audiobooks and enjoy the scenery. Add in all of the walking I did within Stockholm, and I was easily logging more than 10,000 steps a day.
It’s a no-brainer that more exercise equals more calories burned, but there’s even more compelling evidence to ditch the car: A new, impressively-detailed report from TIME reveals that plain, simple, boring old walking is one of the best things you can do for your body. The report claims it burns fat more efficiently than running, keeps you happy, extends your life, and helps prevent dozens of chronic conditions (including most cancers).
I needed to figure out how to adapt what I learned to normal, American life. I didn’t want to return home — where there is added sugar in food and where I don’t live 20 minutes from a train station — and fall back into all of my old habits.
If you want to try any of them out for yourself (and I HIGHLY recommend you do) here’s where to start:
Savor the (high-quality) foods you love without guilt
Food is fuel. It’s also a source of pleasure, tradition, community, and flat-out happiness. For me, living a truly balanced and happy lifestyle doesn’t mean denying myself food I love — it means choosing when I want to indulge and shifting my lifestyle to accommodate that. Skip low-quality, processed foods (sugary drinks, fast food, etc;) but don’t feel bad about enjoying that buttery mushroom pasta or a delicious piece of freshly-baked bread.
Marie Kondo the hell out of your diet. Does that corndog spark joy? Ditch the corndog. Keep the stuff you actually love.
Reject hidden sugar
Hidden added sugars are terrible because you can’t even enjoy them. Seriously — I’d much rather bite into a fantastic chocolate chip cookie than unknowingly ingest sugar in my pasta sauce and whole-wheat bread. Take the extra time at the grocery store to check the labels of your food items (even the ones that look “healthy!”) and swap your staples out for alternatives free from unnecessary sweeteners.
Take a lunch break walk
Desk jobs, am I right? Sitting all day does nothing good for your body or your mind. Break up the monotony of the day by taking a walk on your lunch hour — you’ll get some steps in and do a whole bunch of good for your health in the process. If your lunch break isn’t a good time, analyze when you can get a half hour of walking in per day. A morning walk with the pup? Can you walk to work, or the train? Can you take the stairs? Can you — and I’m serious about this last one — park at the very back of parking lots when you’re out and about, so you’re forced to walk an extra few minutes at a time?
It sounds silly, but it’ll add up.